With every passing year, our understanding of how dementia affects people and how we can treat it gets better and better. Unfortunately, every new year brings us closer to a crisis: According to a new study published Thursday in The Lancet, dementia rates around the world are expected to triple by the year 2050—affecting 153 million people, up from 57 million in 2019.
This comprehensive new forecast—which predicted prevalence rates for 195 countries—is an urgent warning for the world to address dementia’s biggest risk factors now rather than later, as well as for countries that will be hit hardest to begin making preparations to provide long term care and treatment options for elderly populations over the next three decades.
“Dementia has a large impact on health systems, and service and support for end of life care,” Emma Nichols, public health researcher at the University of Washington and lead author of the new study, told The Daily Beast. “As the number of people with dementia increases, the availability of health services will need to increase to keep pace with anticipated demand.”
On the surface, the findings aren’t entirely surprising—larger populations mean more old people, which means higher rates of dementia. But the new study gives us a few special insights that could be very useful in how we plan to fight the condition.
For one, thanks to more recent population booms, North African and Middle Eastern countries are expected to have the biggest increases in dementia rates. From 2019 to 2050, for instance, Qatar’s dementia cases will skyrocket by 1,926 percent; the UAE’s by 1,795 percent; Bahrain’s by 1,084 percent; Ethiopia by 443 percent.
In contrast, high-income Asian Pacific countries should have the smallest increases in cases, since their populations are actually expected to shrink, and dementia risk factors like obesity, high blood sugar, and smoking are less prevalent thanks to effective public health programs. Japan’s cases, for example, should only go up by about 27 percent.
The authors believe that if proper actions are taken to limit the impact of different risk factors, the world can slash projected dementia cases by more than 6 million. Even modest and low-cost improvements in risk factors like education, they wrote, could have large-scale impacts in reducing dementia.
But the biggest takeaway, said Nichols, is simply that the world needs to start pouring more resources into local health systems to ensure that dementia can be diagnosed early and patients are given robust care. This is especially true for developing nations, which could begin now.
The authors do encourage more investment in treatment research, but Nichols emphasized that “it is difficult to uncover the specifics of the underlying mechanisms that cause disease in most people.” Expecting a breakthrough treatment for dementia in the near future is not a prudent strategy, they caution.
If you’re looking for a more optimistic view of the future, you should know that not everyone agrees with the severity of the new study. Michaël Schwarzinger and Carole Dufouil from Bourdeaux University Hospital in France, who were not involved with the study, wrote in an accompanying essay in The Lancet that they felt the authors were providing “apocalyptic projections'' that are “oversimplifying the underlying mechanisms that cause dementia.” Schwarzinger and Dufouil believe that even in low income countries, personal health changes adopted over a lifetime are on the upswing, and we can expect these trends to significantly prevent or delay the onset of dementia.
In other words, we should read into the predictions as just that: predictions, not certainties.